2007 - 2021

Singed Milk

On the Ulva buy-out and memories from Eigg twenty years ago. Maxwell MacLeod raises a glass to Scotland’s greatest treasures.

As a no hoper freelance journalist with a knowledge of the Hebrides I have been asked by a major newspaper to give them some background on the Ulva buy-out, and as my head is now full of the research I have been doing for them I thought I might simultaneously jot down some of what I have been sketching out for them for Bella, even although it will almost certainly annoy some of your more sensitive readers.

For that I apologise, we polemicists are often emissaries of satan. Sorry, it just gives us such pleasure to force thought.

To kick of the irritation by being indulgently personal let me introduce myself. Whilst I may talk like a repressed English public school boy (jings you brutal commentary guys in Bella are being handed the opportunity to unburden yourselves on a plate) my family have lived in the Hebrides, mostly as Parish Ministers for many hundreds of years, and as I am sure you will all agree the formalisation of superstition is a fascinating trade that has mediated honestly between the landlord and the tenant down the ages (this essay really is the gift that keeps on giving, eh guys? I feel like a golf ball waiting to be blasted down the course).

Accordingly when I was a child spending most of my holidays on Iona ( there was a chatty kid there called Mike Small. God knows what became of him ) I developed an extreme suspicion of the island’s owner the Duke of Argyll who was a Viagra landlord ( I have a house in the highlands but I dont get up nearly as much as I would like ) Why, I would ask the pier side crabs as I tormented their claws with a stone dangled on a string, do we never see this guy who controls so much here? By what right is he the Alpha Male, and does it really provide the most efficient system of land management?

I never met him once, I am told he was a nice man, though his personality wasn’t my complaint.

By my mid teens I was a fervent socialist fired by the thought that all wicked landlords should be hung from lamp posts and went off to do Karl Marx’s work as a school teacher in a virtually communist comprehensive school in London’s East End hoping to learn how to make Molotov cocktails and seduce dungaree wearing social workers.

That was of course before I acquired my now perfect skill set of inter gender relationships and now just see seduction as the humiliating process a man has to go through as he waits to find out what a woman decided shortly after she met him.

Now let me assure you that if Karl Marx himself had ever had to experience being a school teacher in London’s East End in the early 1980s he would have become a Tory and after a few years I came back home sliding rapidly to the right.

Cut to circa the nineties ( now there’s a relief) and I am running a business advising charities on how to raise funds and the door opens and in comes an old Iona pal called Tom Forsyth who was one of the founders of the Scoraig Community and he’s asking me to advise him on the Eigg buy-out as he’s on their board. And I’m in pompous fart mode (sorry Tom it goes with the education, sometimes you just can’t help it ) and I lean back on my Director’s chair and give him a lecture on how I have heard that Eigg has been colonised by a bunch of Yorkshire dope smoking subsidy junky hippies and that my sympathies lies with their fine landlord Keith Schellenberg who seems a first rate chap and who has sent his son to my old school. Arf arf.

At this Tom, who is well into his sixties and is wearing Oxfam shop oilskins, rises in silent fury and heads for the door without a word , and as he does so I notice he has a huge smear of mud on the back of his oily jacket.

Slightly, ok, very, patronisingly I rise to wipe the mud off Tom’s back and to my amazement this sweet and invariably kindly old man pushes me away and spits. ” Listen Maxie ( my childhood appellation) I hitch hiked for two days to come to see you and slept in a ditch last night which is why I am so muddy and all you do is patronise me and make conclusions on things you don’t understand.You should be ashamed of yourself.”

And suddenly I am indeed ashamed and not even the fish supper I immediately buy him gets me off the hook, so I promise to attend some ghastly land reform conference he wants me to go to in Inverness.He was and is such a nice man and had been like an uncle to me when I was the size of a cricket bat. It was the least I could do.

And the conference was a life changer. My main memory is that I sat at a lunch table with two stangers called Bill Ritchie from Assynt and another called Andy Wightman ( there’s another,
I wonder what happened to him ? ) and the conversation was so passionate that none of us touched our food as we shouted at each other incessantly. Seriously, we didn’t even lift the cutlery and by the end of the meal I had promised to go to Eigg and see what I could do to help. The answer was bugger all. They ignored all my advice on fundraising, but I fell in love with them and their cause, and they were sweet enough to tolerate me for many a subsequent visit.

The key thing that so few landlords from my own background fail to understand about Eigg is that whilst there are some (though not as many as on other Estates) folk who smoke a bit of dope there (and yes they like a good grant- who doesn’t ? ) in the main they are some of the most hard working entrepreneurs that I have ever come across and they were determined not only to improve their lot but be exemplars in showing other failing and subsidy reliant communities what could be done.

Are they just a bunch of hippy wasters ? It’s quite likely that some arrived as such but the weather soon weeds those kind of people out of Hebridean life and only those who can work a full shift survive more than one or two winters.

And the weirdest thing about it is that the good ones who delivered the buy-out are a feather in the cap for the man who they deposed of , the Toad of Udny, Keith Schellenberg himself. He may be a bit of a chancer and tricky to work with but fair play to him he had persuaded so many fine people to up sticks and go and live there. If ever there was a man who was the architect of his own destruction it was KS and if he had only played his hand a bit better he might now be the hero of the land reform movement and not its bogey man.

No the people I met on Eigg were mostly extraordinarily switched on grafters. Whilst few had degrees or much money they knew about campaigning and focus and even although it was still years away from the buy-out it wasn’t unusual to see three or four committee meetings a week with everyones opinions being listened to and noted and personality clashes being methodically resolved. The parties were extraordinary, not just because of their energy but because more than half the population could play musical instruments. You could feel the energy rising like a volcano that was about to erupt in such parties and I often thought that if someone had walked into a party and had announced they were the new owner of the island that everyone would have burst into laughter and played another tune and someone would have given the stranger a beer and explained that they already owned the place in everything but title and asked if he had any new songs he wanted to sing, because ‘Island Owner’ wasn’t one that was allowed any more.

All that was twenty odd years ago and now I look back on those days on Eigg as being some of the happiest and interesting I have ever spent. Since then the island community may have indeed absorbed a good deal of government cash but in exchange they have pioneered a huge number of innovations in areas such as community energy, apportionment of land for people who want to build their own homes, conflict resolution and training programmes. And are they all sorted out? Has nirvana been created? Don’t be ridiculous, these are just normal often impoverished people and they struggle with their challenges just like the rest of us, but here’s an honest appraisal. In the twenty odd years that I have been witnessing Eigg I have seen improvements and developments every single year and during that time the population has almost doubled. A bunch of English hippies living off the state? If you seriously believe that go and see for yourself before you insult them.

Which brings us to Ulva. Now I am writing this from Muck and naturally the main subject of conversation amongst every tourist here is whether the £4.5 million pounds that the government has put into the island’s purchase has been worth it.

Now I’ve known Ulva for most of my life, indeed my late Father went there around 1905 ( true) and told me that he met people who could remember the clearances and that they could remember the stench of the singed milk that had been hurled on the peat fires by the bailiffs. And do I support the £4.5 million given? Oh yes, whole-heartedly, but I am no longer a romantic socialist and dont think that nationalisation of such islands, and lets face it that’s what this is, is a model that would work everywhere.

But the other model, the free market model, has also failed. Sure there are some islands, and I regard the privately owned Muck as being the best managed island in the Hebrides, where private ownership has been a huge success but there are others where the viagras have come and gone and soon tired of their toy, though forgot to sell it on.

I recognise the syndrome. I myself I own a family house that I should have sold years ago, it’s hard to let go, sentiment snarls up efficiency, it’s a hard drug to beat.

Every island seems to have different needs and different systems of ideal management. I believe that Rum, for example, should be run as a government managed nature reserve, whilst Canna could well do with another John Lorne Campbell living on the place, though ideally one with more cash.

I approve of how Eigg is managed, and perhaps perversely I also approve of the way Muck is owned and managed. Different problems need different solutions.

But why should the six people living on Ulva be given the cash? It’s simple, because Ulva isn’t just a rake of fields waiting to be turned into crofts, although there’s room for that, it’s one of the most exquisite nature reserves waiting to happen in all of Scotland, a treasure trove of diversity that overlooks other gems such as Staffa, The Treshnish and fair Iona, all of which are now rightly managed through various agencies by the state. Visit Ulva, and it’s in reasonable day visiting distance from such tourist hot spots as Fort William and Oban, and you will find such a variety of flora and fauna that anyone with any knowledge of such things will be thrilled and inspired. In my perfect world every Geography teacher in the land should soon be getting their kids tuned into this wonder island by every internet device available, be it permanent viewing cameras or well crafted web sites, or locally employed wardens, and even if it still is going to cost another few million to deliver those kinds of services they would still get my vote. Let students all over the world tune in daily to watch the orchids flower the orca parade, the otters chatter, the cottages be re-inhabited.

Night is now falling in Muck as I write, I’m off back to the mainland tomorrow. The rowing boat that Mike so kindly lent me is now back in its noost after Lawrence dragged it there at no charge with his tractor and I will now pour out that last dram of Talisker and go drink it on the hill behind the cottage as I say good bye to these lovely islands. They, and their communities, are one of Scotland’s greatest treasures. We should care for them with self-sacrificing love. And loads of money.

Comments (54)

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  1. Justin Kenrick says:

    How come it’s when I’m far off working in Africa that I come across your crazed scribbling and delight in it?

    I won’t even mention the implications of the fact that these islanders, whether the Muck way or the Eigg way, show that self-determination may be hard, but nothing beats it.

    But I will mention a trickier question you raise: how to let go of, or welcome into, your own home in a way that helps your own community to flourish. If I heard that right then it might be worth repaying the advice seeker by seeking the advice on how to go sboot that, from the good folk of Muck before you go, or the good folk of Eigg as you meet up with them on Calmac’s Loch Nevis on your way home.

    1. Justin Kenrick says:

      Who’d have believed it?! . . .

      “In its annual survey of well-being, the Office for National Statistics points out how, amid the continuing gloom of the Brexit process, folk south and west of the border in England, Wales and Northern Ireland are becoming more unhappy. Yet the UK’s overall happiness rating has been pushed up thanks to the sunnier disposition of those living in Scotland.”


  2. Magnus Linklater says:

    Maxwell claims no longer to be a romantic old socialist, but the prescription he advises for Ulva is precisely that — romantic and socialist. Let us, he says, turn the island of Ulva into a nature reserve, so that we can all enjoy the flora and fauna (he doesn’t say much about people) “even if it is going to cost another few million.” That, I guess, is our money.
    In fact, when Jamie Howard, its owner, put it on the market, what he wanted, as I understand, was a private buyer who would invest in the island and revive its economy, without having to rely on taxpayers’ money. That has been ruled out by the government-supported community buyout. Instead therefore, public funds will, from now on, be needed to maintain an island which currently has six inhabitants.
    A pretty socialist model, I would say.

    1. Thanks for your comment Magnus. Its hardly ‘socialist’ to offer the community in areas historically ravaged by the clearances an opportunity to run their own affairs? The success of this model can be seen across Scotland as modest ameliorative efforts are made to right the wrongs of hundreds of years of land theft and concentration in the hands of a tiny group of people.

      1. Jamsie says:

        Dear Mr Ed
        Not sure about your point on the clearances.
        Sure they were a terrible episode in our history but that was then, this is now.
        The taxpayer was not responsible for the clearances so why should the funds provided by them be considered as some form of reparation for something not remotely of their making.
        All that money for six people?
        And I bet you at least half are not born in Scotland which according to some on here should render them without the vote.
        So it does seem to me to be a bit of a grandstanding gesture by wee Nicola with our money.
        If you pro rata this how much could the people of Shettleston and Govanhell expect to be spent on them?
        The answer of course is zilch as the tories and their austerity mean that there is no cash to prevent people having to use food banks or provide decent housing.
        As I have repeatedly said the SNP are trying to portray themselves as progressive and do talk the talk.
        Walking the walk is completely different from the reality however!

        1. Wul says:


          I’ve realised you have nothing at all to say here except “blah, blah, blah, the SNP”, so this will be the last time I’ll respond to anything you write.

          You say: “All that money for six people?”

          No, it’s not just for six people is it? Anyone in Europe will be able to go and live there (until next year, then, its just us Brits), that’s a fair few million people. More realistically, thousands of folk can visit and enjoy the place and wonder at its beauty.

          You say: “…how much could the people of Shettleston and Govanhell expect to be spent on them?” [Your misspelling]

          I worked for Glasgow City Council in the East End of Glasgow in the early nineties. There were families there receiving, easily, hundred of thousands of pounds of state support per annum to keep their children safe. This was, and is, their right in any society that is at all civilised. It costs money to run a decent country and since we are “the public” why should we get upset about public money being spent on us?

          Your argument about tax payers money being “wasted” is entirely spurious (as you probably know, since your just here to make mischief) It isnae tax payers money, it’s the government’s, we gave it to them to make a decent society.

          What would you do Jamsie? What’s your plan?

          1. Jamsie says:

            Er no Wul.
            All that money is being spent on six people to buy something they could not normally afford.
            The money could be better spent improving prople’s lives in places where it would go most good.
            The whole episode is shabby grandstanding and I think if you checked how the inhabitants voted in 2014 you might suddenly change your opinion given their origin.
            If the people of Shettleston and Govanhell went to wee Nicola and asked for the money to buy their areas what do you think the answer would be?
            Why should they not be allowed the same opportunity as those who live on Ulva.
            You really don’t get it do you?
            The taxpayers money paid in by the taxpayer should be used responsibly and fairly on behalf of all of Scotland.
            The government should not be enriching private landowners.
            It is really quite simple except to a nationalist who cannot it will not challenge poor and incompetent decisions supposedly made on our behalf by this dishonest administration.

    2. Maxwell Macleod says:

      Thank you Magnus Linklater for bothering,
      Firstly when I once wrote a profile of Ulva for Scotland on Sunday I distinctly remember Jamie, who I like and admire , saying that he was happy to consider a Community Buy Out. I cant remember of that quote made it passed the subs but I particularly remember it as his delightful first wife gave him a right bollocking! So your suggestion that Jamie was dragged to the block isn’t entirely fair, though the behaviour of Hollyrood on this matter deserves scrutiny, and quite possibly condemnation.
      Now Magnus, rich man’s estate with him or her pouring cash in and so saving our overstretched public purses a hit? It’s not too absurd a suggestion, after all there’s only a tiny population and it can hardly be said that Scotland has been going crazy in it’s support. If this was a wind blasted shooting estate on the backside of Mull’s Ben Mhore with hardly a blade of grass or a ruined Cottage you might convince me. There you might indeed find some poor character who was plucked too early from his Mother’s breast to be sent off to school to be locked in a laundry basket and needed to call himself Sir Max Factor of Agaelicnamethatsnottoohardtosay so he has some kind of identity and if he wants pour his inherited millions into the pockets of the Mull tradesmen and breed pheasants so that he can get his jollies shooting their heads off before running back to Chelsea when the first bad rain falls in June bring it on. Squeeze him dry guys and leave his poor bored wife alone.
      But its not. It’s a tiny island divided from the cocktail party circuit of the Officers Mess of Mull by a nasty piece of water that did for Lord Ullins daughter and I just cant imagine Sir Max having too much fun there. Actually I can but lets not go there. Please. Alastair.
      No I stick with my thesis. If the SNP government wants to throw a few million into turning Ulva into a superb nature resort, even if its just a cynical P.R exercise, then they have my support. Though it must be in close association with internet geeks who can make this exquisite island available world wide to students.

      1. Magnus Linklater says:

        OK — but I think you should explain that to the voters, and ask their opinion. It doesn’t seem good husbandry to me.

        1. This has been mainstream cross-party long term consensus on land ownership for some time. The SNP were elected with this clear commitment. The idea that a handful of individuals distorting the ecology of large swathes of land for hunting’ n fishin’ is in some way productive or a credible way to continue is defied by most people, as is the chronic mismanagement of large parts of Scotland and the deplorable tenancy and housing arrangements which are the inevitable outcome of such arrangements.

  3. Jamsie says:

    Interesting and an entertaining read even if I have some disagreements with your position(s).
    Like all of us you have adapted whilst aging and possibly mellowed and accepted more hence my brackets.
    But see these Yorkshire born dope smoking hippies?
    Do you think they are dishonourable when they vote against independence or that they are criminals for abusing themselves on hallucinatory substances?
    Just interested in your perspective not looking for an argument.

  4. Mullfan says:

    Magnus Linklater believes that Jamie Howard wanted a ‘private buyer who would invest in the island and revive its economy’. A simple internet search would show that the selling agents had been instructed to sell the island for the highest price and that its potential as a stalking/sporting estate was listed in the particulars.

    Folk keep talking about ‘all that money for six people’. That is the point; at the moment, an island that could support many more only has six people living on it, and houses that could accommodate more people have been allowed to fall into disrepair. The community group who are taking over the island plans to put that right as one of their first priorities.

    1. Jamsie says:

      So will that require more taxpayers money?

      1. By “Taxpayers Money” I think you mean collective action for the common good. Yes.

        1. Jamsie says:

          No Mr Ed.
          It really depends what you define as the common good.
          Are six people living on an island more important than 16000 living in poverty in Shettleston and Govanhell?
          Progressive policy?
          I don’t think so!

  5. Maxwell Macleod says:

    i have received an e mail this morning from someone who I trust in Mull saying there was considerable anger there about the purchase, but given that so much of Mull is now owned by Viagras and CIAs ( cash in the attic watching retirees) I am not surprised.
    Politically I think Hollyrood has scored an own goal on this one, we shall see.
    The core issue here is what we want to achieve from our wild places. If its just ground for sporting estates, and there is a certain commercial sense about that even if you find it repulsive, then fine let us confront this and man up to including it in accepted policy.
    Farming? Again its often nonsense, sure there are some great premium products coming out of islands but there are also many grizzly old sheep that have cost the tax payer far more than they are worth and again we should confront this painful though it may be.
    Are we really in the business of paying farmers for producing worthless animals just to give them something to do, or making the land look better ordered? Once more a painful question, but better confront it than patronise and waste scare resources.
    Saving the gaelic culture? Listen I interviewed the last gaelic speaker on Ulva for the papers nice woman but she’s long dead now. Again painful to confront.
    My own passion is using the internet to display some of the most interesting of nature, and communities, to a watching world.
    This is why I am for Ulva.
    Go Colin. Go.

  6. Mike says:

    It is not apparent that Jamsie’s point has been answered. Nature conservancy is fully addressed by laws and budgets other than those for community buy-outs, so the grounds for discriminating in favour of Hebridean islanders in this way come down to (1) bad things happened there 150-200 years ago (which maybe they did, ignoring the extent to which land-owners were then actively trying to persuade people not to be lured away by the attractions of America, and the extent to which Highland de-population was mirrored across many other parts of Europe – but then bad things have happened in Shettleston and Govanhill too) and (2) the islands are pretty. Are those justifiable criteria for spending other people’s money? But thanks for putting my boat back.

  7. Colum Scriven says:

    Hi Max,
    Good to see that you’re still stirring things up with your writing. I applaud your efforts of raising the profile of a buyout of Ulva. I don’t know the island but recognise the benefits of returning the land to the people who live there and to support the natural environment.
    I think that the argument that we shouldn’t spend £4.5m on 6 people on Ulva, because it can be better spent on Shettleston or Govanhell, is a spurious one. I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t spend money on those areas, if we need to spend it on those areas we should make a case for it. If funding was based purely upon population or poverty we would never spend money on the environment or rural areas. Apart from that the money will come from different pots, so shouldn’t be mutually exclusive.
    I’d be interested to hear how you get on, Max.
    (Ed. If you could forward on my email address to Max, please, I’d appreciate it as I’d like to get in touch with him.)
    Colum (The Jesuit) Scriven.

    1. maxwell macleod says:


      I remember you with respect
      I am always happy to receive letters and open about my address which is Dowies Mill, Cramond Eh46dw.
      I’m not sure I follow your argument. I very much support massive investment in the Hebrides but feel it should be done according to real market need and there is a real market need for these beautiful islands that is not being met, and the moment huge amounts of tax papers money is being wasted and if we are set for economic changes due to Brexit and probable independence we then we should be setting up businesses that can pay their way rather than prop up local businesses out of sentimentality.

      1. Colum Scriven says:

        Good to hear from you, Max. Thanks for your address.
        Apologies if my argument wasn’t very clear. I was supporting what I thought was your point about the buyout. I’m a great believer in local ownership, especially when it combines with enhancing the natural environment.
        I’ll be in touch.

  8. SleepingDog says:

    I suppose islands would be very useful in the event of a (natural or artificial) pathogen. I hear ebola is returning, and the Swedes and Danes are steeling themselves against attack or catastrophe. At least if we have some people, animals and plants, digital cultural archives surviving on a few quarantined islands, it is better than them all being wiped out along with the mainland. Better dot a few research centres amongst them too. On hills.

  9. Wul says:

    The thing that bothers me about community buy-outs is that the poor locals are thereby condemned to a life of committees, fund raising, annual reporting, grant applications, risk assessments, benchmarking and a whole, new world of bureaucracy, equal to a local authority’s, but without any paid staff or infrastructure.

    It’s all good work and character building no doubt but why can’t they just become normal parts of the country like almost everywhere else? Why can’t the local authority just adopt the place, like any other neighbourhood where folk live, and provide roads, street lights, sewerage, rubbish collection, vandalised bus shelters etc. just like the rest of the country? They could even throw in some affordable building plots for enterprising settlers.

    The local authority would need to buy the place from the incumbent laird of course (making sure he gets his huge unearned profit from the uplift in value of something he didn’t create, which he can then stash offshore), but that’s the same amount of money that he will get from the state in buy-out grants anyway.

    You could call this highly radical land-reform process “Normalisation” or “Just like a sane, modern country” or something else more catchy.

    Up and down the country we see Community Development Trusts and other, very worthwhile but extremely time consuming, projects being created by the hard graft of local people simply to replicate what an actual, functioning, local democracy-as-if-people-matter should be doing anyway.

    1. Magnus Linklater says:

      Or — shock, horror — allow the owner to sell to a private buyer with built-in conditions about investing in the community, just as Jamie Howard wanted to do. Net result, a far higher degree of inward investment than would ever come from government or local authority, and with no call on the tax-payer. Job done!
      Oh well, you can but try …

      1. Jim Bennett says:

        Magnus, can you offer any evidence for your assertion that the former owner wanted to sell to a benevolent private investor? The sales prospectus (easily searchable on the internet) appears to entirely contradict you.

  10. Mike MacKenzie says:

    Max raises some interesting points, all the more interesting because they arise from within that armour of cynicism that anyone, who has long been associated with and has knowledge of our Highlands and Islands, must wear. After all the last hundred years or so has been one long series of experiments; well-intended (or sometimes not so well intended) attempts to deal with the Highlands and Islands ‘problem’. Community ownership is only the latest in a long line of such experiments and although it is the one with the highest moral case to succeed only time will tell if in the long run it proves to be a success.
    One measure of success, perhaps the most important, is in maintaining population and by this measure Ulva and its environs, located as it is within Argyll, is part of a County in serious decline. The phenomena is not exclusive to Argyll. Rural decline afflicts to some degree all of rural Scotland and indeed most parts of the developed and developing world.
    And yet, the market apparently puts a value of £4.5 million on a small island like Ulva. The few remaining islanders have something in common with the rich bankers or tax accountants who might be inclined to blow their bonuses on the acquisition of a Scottish island. The super rich invest their money. The islanders invest much more. They invest their lives. Each recognises a high value in Ulva and places like it.
    Markets always attribute value to commodities that are rare and unique and speculation is therefore always part of the ownership equation but there is something more to it than that. The rich seek to repair their souls in their occasional visits and sometimes atone for their greed by doing ‘good work’. They are after all the ‘Masters of the Universe’ and they know what is what. The feudal impulse is seldom absent.
    Those who live long on such islands have souls that are in rather better order. They know quality of life and fulfilment as the fruits of the challenges they embrace in living in such places. Their point of origin is of no consequence. As Max suggests, island environments have a way of sending unsuitable chiels back to the city and of turning those who remain into true born islanders.
    There is a point in experiments to maintain or increase fragile populations in such places. Some of our best economists are intrigued by the sad fact that despite increasing material prosperity in the developed world, happiness, fulfilment and well-being have not improved in fifty years. As objectively as we can measure it there are even suggestions that in the UK it is declining. Except, it seems for parts of the Highlands and Islands.
    There are lessons then to be learned from successful models of rural living that provide high quality lifestyles and as Scotland has the second lowest population density in Europe, plenty of space to do it in. The regeneration of Ulva and places like it could have invaluable lessons to teach us.
    Andy Wightman, of course, is correct that we have the highest concentration of land ownership in Europe, perhaps in the World and yet successive left wing shades of Scottish Government have resisted campaigns to adequately tackle this. Andy wants to tip up the monopoly board and scatter the pieces. Governments fear the effect on the mainstream economy. Meaningful land reform within the powers available to the Scottish Government may be too blunt a weapon for any Government to wield.
    There is of course a more elegant weapon available although not yet wholly within the arsenal of the Scottish Government. Too often taxation is discussed merely in terms of raising revenue but it has an altogether more powerful function in encouraging behaviour which promotes the common weal and in discouraging the alternative. We have a hint of this in the abolition of rates relief for shooting estates. Full taxation powers could be the sharp sword that slices the Gordian knot of land reform.

  11. Maxwell Macleod says:

    Thanks for that Wul,
    Hmm its not a model I find attractive.
    Let me tell you the story of the Kilhoan mouse. Kilhoan as I am sure you know is a small village on the end of Ardnamurachan and a few years ago a lady found a mouse in her council house. She paid her rent so she was straight on the phone to the rodent officer in Fort William who spent a happy day driving over to lay a trap, set some poison or hit the wretched animal with a shovel. Who knows. Cost? At least a couple of hundred.
    Right dear reader my next tale concerns some fishing rights owned by the government in nearbye Skye. A village that may well have been visible to the mouse as he rubbed his sore head ( no animals were hit in this story.)
    Right so its some poor sod of a civil servant in Edinburgh who had to decide who was going to get the fishing rights, and the local community lost out. Centralised control often wastes money. Just ask the SNP they have a strict policy of never allowing control to be centralised and they never flinch from it.

    1. Wul says:

      Maxwell, I agree with you about the SNP and their love of central control.

      My “local authority” purchaser would ideally be a (not yet extant) truly local authority with enough devolved resources and power to actually do stuff that matters and make an informed difference locally.

      There’s a lot of talk at government-supported events about “community empowerment” and how great it is. Until you ask for local control of the actual, real, fiscal and strategic levers of power that is. At that point you become an unreasonable “pressure group” and not to be entertained. (Nice, well behaved community groups can be co-opted and used for lovely publicity photos showing “partnership” in action)

      I don’t agree with you though about the “private purchase with fair rules” approach. It just seems wrong for one man (it’s usually a man isn’t it?) having dominion over the home lives and security of a community of other people far less wealthy and powerful than he.

      I can see the apparant absurdity and “wasted” money in the “mouse” example you provide of local authority procedure. However it’s a bit petty and I wonder if things like that are, in fact, a “waste”.

      The council rat-catcher got a day’s pay (which he probably spent in his home town, re-circulating it) and a nice wee hurl which cheered him up so he went home with good mental health and was kind to his weans. The old lady gets her mouse killed and a wee visit from a nice council man, even though she lives in the back of beyond.

      Where’s the harm? And what’s the alternative? Tell her, “sorry we only provide a service for folk sensible enough to live near the town hall, you’re on your own granny”

      Your own argument would see folk like you, who live in the highlands, paying £40 to post a first class letter to Glasgow.

      In a caring society there will always be transactions which are not “efficient”. That is kind of the point in caring about other people.

      1. Wul says:

        Apologies Maxwell, it was Magnus who made the point about the “private ownership with fair rules” approach. Getting my M’s mixed up.

  12. Maxwell Macleod says:

    Can anybody give me some hard facts on Ulva. There is a rumour in circulation that an offer far higher than the valuation was made and was chased off by Hollyrood.
    I dont believe it, but it is none the less in circulation and should be confronted for the sake of all parties.
    If the parliament is indeed messing with market prices they should be held to account. Informed comment welcome, this is no place or time for silly comments. I repeat this is only an unconfirmed rumour and I dont believe it for a second.
    But its a rat that needs trapped.

    1. Alastair McIntosh says:

      My dear Sir Maxwell,

      Under Scotland’s land reform legislation, a registered community group acquires a preemptive right to buy within a given time window at an economic valuation set by a government appointed valuer. The valuation on Ulva was reportedly slightly below the asking price. Economic valuation cuts out speculative pricing. It is immaterial if any other party offered higher during the community’s time of opportunity. That’s why land agents say it “queers the market”.

      The island has not been bought to benefit only 6 people. It has been bought by a community group covering part of neighbouring Mull, for the regeneration of that overall area by bringing more life back into the place. As such, the Scotsman (9 Jan 2018) reported that 401 residents were entitled to vote. 255 chose to vote, and of these 163 or 63.9% voted in favour of the buyout.

      The Scottish Government’s Land Fund comprises £10 million a year. Land reform has strong cross party support from all except the Conservative Party. Indeed, Labour and Green politicians regularly accuse the SNP of not pushing reform far enough. That £10 million is not raised from our income taxes. It comes from having reintroduced business rates on sporting estates, those same rates that the Conservative Government abolished to subsidise landed power in the 1990s.

      As such, the lairds are financing their own clearance.

      Why is that a good thing in places of viable human community?

      It frees up plots for social use, especially social housing. That means young families no longer have to slog it out on minimum wage just to cover the mortgage component of a £50k housing plot. It means they can afford to live there while earning less, and give more time to their kids, raising a new generation who will carry positive social skills and values. This also gives hope and inspiration to urban folks. See my earlier Bella piece on Ulva for evidence of that.

      It opens up opportunities for business entrepreneurship, meaning that folks previously on benefits are now taxpayers. As such, land reform squares the circle of entrepreneurship and socialism. Mrs Thatcher ought rejoice.

      It opens up natural resources to communities, meaning that proceeds of renewable energy etc benefit the local economy rather than migrating south to London.

      It gives local communities a stake in nature conservation, turning it to job creation through ecotourism, restoration work, etc, rather than seeing nature conservation as an alien imposition from outside by the green wellie brigade (before we all started wearing green wellies)

      Through repopulation, it raises thresholds above the critical mass that justifies services like schools, shops and medical care. (On Iona, that now has social housing, the past decade has seen the school roll leap from 6 a decade ago to 27 today.)

      Above all, land reform empowers people. There are tremendous spin offs from learning to run your own community, to be (again) a fully functioning community. Having a rich landowner getting all the going agricultural grants etc, and doing it for you as a hopefully benign patriarch, is not the same as doing it for yourselves and democratically accountable to one another.

      In short, land reform is now a key way in which Scotland is learning and demonstrating and independence – from within. That is why, whatever you might think of any other form of independence, it represents hope for the future and a challenge to those today who stand in the shoes of beneficiaries of the Clearances.

  13. maxwell macleod says:

    Thanks Alastair, very useful as ever.

    1. maxwell macleod says:

      Dear Prof ( withdrawn ) Alastair,

      Just to be transparent about this it’s probably best if I firstly acknowledge you as a tried and true friend of many years standing and that I am a keen supporter of your work, so this is by no means an attack on the thrust of your excellent piece here, but I do worry about the section on valuation.
      As I understand it the suggestion is that the government will value property at a certain amount which is below the real market value and then purchase it. If this is indeed the policy then I dont think it is good for either the land freeform movement or indeed it’s opponents.
      It’s just bad law,
      Say this was being done with cars. If I had a car which everyone in my street fancied ( and God knows I dont ) and they sent a letter to the government saying it would be rather handy if it was to be taken over as a community car ( a laudable aim ) this might all be fine and well if my neighbours chipped in say twenty per cent of its value and the government came up with eighty per cent. I would be happy enough at that.
      If however I knew that if I took the car to the car auction I would get £1000 for the car and the government then told me that they were going to pay me £800, the neighbours were chipping a tenner and then being given the car I might think that this was not good practice.
      I would also be tempted to let the tyres down in the middle of the night.
      To be serious I accept that radical change is necessary, particularly given the SNP’s request for a great deal more inward investment, but lets establish a system in which fairness is seen to be done otherwise this will lead to considerable social division, I very much endorse the notion of considerable support being given to communities that get their act together and establish good and proven management structures and indeed raise considerable funds.
      But although I remain a huge supporter of the Ulva buy out there are elements of the process that have a nasty taste about it that I suspect is going to do the land reform movement no good at all.

      Love as ever Sir ( unearned ) Maxwell.

      1. Jim Bennett says:

        Hello Maxwell,
        What Alasdair MacIntosh didn’t say was that irrespective of the valuation, there is no compulsion on the owner to sell. So, if Lord/Lady Snootty doesn’t like the valuation, they simply do not have to sell. The only issue for them is that they are prohibited for a time limited period on selling to any other party. They have a right of appeal within Community Right to Buy and their immense resources often lead them to win these appeals.

        The valuation is required to be carried out by the District Valuer. The DV has a professional qualification in valuation which enables him/her to give a “real” valuation.

        1. Jim Bennett says:

          Just to clarify, the “right of appeal” that I mentioned is not against the valuation but rather against registration for the community right to buy.

  14. maxwell macleod says:

    I have had further discussions today with a leading expert on land ownership in the islands and he rather endorses my position that it is dangerous for sales to go through at less than market value.
    Dangerous? Yes dangerous for social cohension and for the whole image of the land reform movement and indeed the SNP government. The danger for them being that they will be seen as being like Zimbabwe.Let me make it plain I do NOT see them as being like Zimbabwe but that’s not my point, which is that they will be percieved as being like Zimbabwe.
    What was interesting is that this expert, who is very much old school, acknowledges that there may be a role for comunity buy outs in certain circumstances, Eigg being a shining example.
    His own suggestion , which I endorse, is that the true market value be ascertined by open competition and then the community ownership faction be allowed to cap it by a pound and be given a certain amount of time. So, to go back to my community owned car example my neigbours would have to go to the auction, buy my car and then go and ask the government for a percentage of it’s cost and the car would sit in the auction house’s pound for a limited amount of time to see if that cash could be raised. I can assure you I wouldn’t then let the tyres down and might even join the consortium.

    1. Mullfan says:

      Excuse my cynicism but surely that would mean that a seller could be in cahoots with a ‘pretend’ buyer to push up the price that the community would have to pay?

      This is at the heart of the housing problem on many islands and Highland areas; i.e. local people being being priced out of the market by those who move from areas where there’s been a ‘property boom’. House and land prices are pushed up, not through their intrinsic value but because of who wants to buy them. And yes, I know that’s market forces. Quite!

      Also, Magnus Linklater says that Jamie Howard wanted to sell to a private buyer with built-in conditions about investing in the community. I have never met Jamie Howard so cannot dispute that but I do know is that his selling agents are quoted as saying that he “wished to sell the island for the highest possible price,” which does seem a contradiction.

      1. Magnus Linklater says:

        Just to clarify: of course Jamie Howard’s agents wanted a good price for the island, but Jamie himself — as I understand it — was clear that he would only sell to someone who was prepared to invest in the island and its community. As the owner he would have had the final say.
        What I find distracting about this whole argument is the assumption that private = bad, public = good. Across the Highlands there are private owners who have ploughed huge amounts of money into the land. Of course there are others who have not. But to dismiss all private interests as unacceptable is to turn one’s back on a valuable source of revenue in an area where financial returns are, at best, uncertain. Amazingly, private landowners can love and nurture their property every bit as much as the local community. And in most cases they can also live happily together.

  15. maxwell macleod says:

    I take your point, however as I understand it if someone offers to buy a property and their conditions are met they are then contractually obligated to complete the deal, so it. would be hard to submit bogus offers as the bidder would be vulnerable to litigation should their offer not be backed with delivered cash.

  16. maxwell macleod says:

    I think that Jim Bennet makes a fascinating observation of which I was not aware, that Jamie Howard, who I repeat I very much like and admire, has/had no obligation to sell and could appeal the price.
    I look forward to hearing his side of the case. I understand that he is saying nothing until the deal is through, for which I cant blame him and wont hassle the poor man. But I do suspect that HMG government or should that be Her Nicola’s government will have have some tricky questions to ask and hope that Magnus Linklater asks those questions in his column and that many read it objectively.

    1. Jim Bennett says:

      Just to clarify, the “right of appeal” that I mentioned is not against the valuation but rather against registration for the community right to buy.

    2. Jim Bennett says:

      Actually, I’m wrong, there is a right of appeal against valuation. There is also a right of “representation” during the ebaluation process. Here is the link to the legislation:

      Here is the relevant legislative text:
      Valuation of land

      26. Following receipt of confirmation that the CB wishes to exercise its right to buy the land, Ministers will appoint an independent valuer within 7 days. The aim of the independent valuation is to ensure you receive a fair price, at market value, for the property. What is meant by market value is set out at section 59(6) and (7) of the Act. The valuation will consist of the value of the land and any moveable property included in the sale, and a brief statement will provide reasons for the valuation figure. For example, if an apparently higher or lower figure is intimated on account of a particular feature of the property, the valuer may provide a general reason for that assessment, rather than detail the specific issues, for example relating to the condition of the property or the work required to rectify any problems. You should therefore consider whether a separate valuation is required for your own purposes. The valuer will take account of the known existence of any person who would be willing to buy the land at a price higher than others would be expected to pay. This reflects market value and ensures the land and any moveable property included in the sale are transferred at a fair price. It is not the purpose of the legislation to allow CBs to purchase land cheaply and at a financial loss to the seller. Where the CB is buying only part of the land to be sold, the amount of any depreciation in the remaining land included in that lot will be compensated.

      27. The valuer will act on behalf of Scottish Ministers and not for any other party involved in the purchase and, under section 60(1), will seek your written views on the value of the land and any moveables prior to intimating the valuation price. The CB will also be consulted. The valuer has 6 weeks to provide Ministers, you and the CB with an assessment of the value of the land, or longer if agreed by Ministers under section 60(3).

      28. Ministers will meet the costs of their appointed valuer. You may also appoint your own valuer, but these costs will not be met by Ministers.

      29. An appeals procedure is available should either the landowner or the CB be unhappy with the valuation. This is detailed at Annex C. If the valuer attends an appeal hearing on behalf of Ministers, the Scottish Executive will meet the costs. However, if you invite the valuer to appear as an independent witness, any costs must be met by you.

  17. Maxwell Macleod says:

    Thank you Mr Bennet

    I have heard it said that should a landowner appeal the valuation and fail to gain the advance in price that they wish that the entire cost of the appeal process must then be paid by the landowner, which may run to tens of thousands and therebye be unattractive to them.
    Do you know if this is the case?

    1. Jim Bennett says:

      Hello Maxwell,
      My experience (from taking the then Scottish Executive) to court in an appeal over CRtB legislation was that the losing party pays the costs. In the case of the appeal that I led, this meant that the community body could have been made insolvent as a result.
      In that case, the Scottish Executive accepted a nominal contribution to its costs and the landowners (to their credit) picked up their own costs.
      I have no sympathy for landowners paying for appeals – I have every sympathy for community bodies being landed with appeal costs. There is no equivalence between wealthy landowners and local communities.

      1. MAXWELL MACLEOD says:

        Thank you Mr Bennet
        Again most useful.
        Your presumption is that the landlord is wealthy, usually the case, however what if they are not?
        I would suggest that there should be a ceiling, carefully controlled, on what a landlord would have to pay, if justice is ro be done.

  18. Maxwell Macleod says:

    This thread seems to have inspired an interesting column in yesterdays ( Monday’s ) Times by the revered Magnus Linklater, ditto a column in Country Life by Joe Gibbs.
    Whilst I would hazard a guess that not all Bella’s readers have a subscription to Country Life it is worth checking. Joe Gibbs is the organiser of the Belladrum Festival and a nice man.

  19. Hugh Andrew says:

    I have come to this debate late. I spend much of my time on Mull. And I also have published Andy Wightman’s classic book so cannot be said to be unsympathetic. However certain very important facts seem to have been overlooked.

    1. While the community as Alastair says took a vote the vote was NOT where to spend £4 million but on one single use. Either the community bought the island or they would not get the money. That is hardly an unbiased referendum.
    2. Purchase is only the ‘start’ to an investment process running into millions. Where is the money coming from for that. Most Highland estates actually lose money hand over fist – so if the community does not get funded they end up worse off than they started.
    3. Mull itself is grossly underinvested. We were promised dualling of Tobermory to Craignure in the 60s. It hasn’t happened. How can we turn an island like Ulva round with inadequate broadband and telecoms and appalling roads?
    4. If the Scottish government is truly serious about landreform why doesn’t it – owning 11% of Scotland’s land it is I think the largest landowner in the country (quite apart from the swathes of rights and imposts it holds across all land) – give its land back to the people?

    Ulva seems to me the form of facile gesture politics which simply reveals the desire for a headline and a political placebo than forming part of any coherent structure of reinvention of the Highlands and islands. The land fund is very limited. Some 40% has gone on one transaction. Who now wont be able to buy their community?

    I return to the central point, and this is no disrespect to Jamie Howard, the transfer of £4 million from the state for an illiquid asset to him merely results in that transfer. In itself it does nothing but monetise an asset for the landowner. And that in itself changes nothing,

    1. Thanks Hugh, I think taking your points in reverse No 4 is probably your strongest.

      Do you mean through the Forest Commission etc?

      3. Improving the Craignure Tobermory road might be a good idea – but the standard development model will probably ruin the highlands if the tourist model is allowed to go uncontrolled

      2. The example from Eigg is that rural communities can thrive if different strategies are brought into play. See for e.g. Alastair McIntosh’s Four Principles here: https://dev.bellacaledonia.org.uk/2018/06/14/community-proofing-land-reform/

      It depends what the “investment process” is for. It is not for continuing the current economic paradigm but just run by the community. It can and should be with a completely different outlook.

      1. True. But that’s where we are and this is the price we have to pay for hundreds of years of land theft and privatisation.


    Thanks Mike/Hugh,
    I share Mike’s exasperation with the tourism model, just look what a hideous place Skye is becoming now that it has sold out to the tourist tbuck, but saying that Eigg for all its successes has given us a model for a self sustaining future is nonsense if you just take agriculture as a signal marker.
    My calculations for government expenditure for the Small Isles from 1995-2015m exceeds £100 million , all be it including capital investment on piers and on top of that we have to add the many million spent on Eigg since independence, plus of c course their share of the many millions of subsidy fior Cal Mac. To suggest that Eigg, or any cf the islands have delivered a reasonable commercial return on this level of investment is obviously ludicrous. And yet I maintain support for the buy out of both Eigg and Ulva but only if they buy in to the notion that they should be seen as exemplars that should be .accessed as such from round the world. If you are being supported to the tune of £100k per head and upwards per annum then the contract has to be that you owe the tax payer a pay back. The islands and their cultures are gems,but they have to pay their way same as anyone else . Bring on the nature reserve of Ulva Staffa Treshnish and Iona, and they will be lauded the world over on the web.. But lets not pretend that simply supporting more sheep and cows is going to be enough to provide a template for a good business model

    1. In what ways – and to who – do they need to “pay their way”? Staffa and Treshnish are different from Iona and Ulva.

      We already have a ‘nature reserve’ on Rum and don’t need another one. We need a local economy and thriving re-populated places where people can afford to live work and play.

      This is considered normal in other countries.

      1. Hugh Andrew says:

        Max did promise he would reply if I wrote! Yes in reply to Editor, I am including all public sector land inc Forestry etc. With regard to ‘paying their way’ I am not sure what this means or how it is validated.

        1. Cities like Edinburgh and Glasgow benefit from gigantic infrastructure and social subsidies – Queensferry Crossing, M8, M74 improvements etc etc
        2. Much of Scotland has been utterly starved of investment to fund the central belt.
        3. Much of what is regarded as ‘subsidy’ in the Highlands and Islands eg Calmac is simply grotesquely inefficient state patronage. There should be bridges at Corran, Luing and to Bute. End of.

        I totally agree re the destructive curse of mass tourism which degrades and does not benefit either environment or economy, the grotesquerie of a Glenfinnan Visitor Centre which is now a Harry Potter homage is an embarrassment. The paradox of course is that the more tourists there are the more VS pats itself on the back.

        Rum is not a true nature reserve. It is a deeply degraded environment (as is much of our country) wrecked by excessive grazing. An intelligently managed environment managed on the basis of sustainability seems to me much richer on all counts.

        My problem with Ulva is that it, what happened and how it happened indicate that there is no real deep understanding of the nature of the problems and how we resolve them. It is a banner waved which will promptly be dropped once the headlines cease. Mull is in many ways a remarkably vibrant economy which is held back by and not enabled by the Scottish government – the failure to intelligently invest, the failure to rethink transport how it works and it costs which makes everything slower and more costly, the lack of people caused by lack of housing, the lack of housing caused by lack of investment, the failure to realise agricultural investment due to agribusiness and supermarket dominance ie we wont pay the real price for food.

        One of the most depressing things about Andrew Wilsons report was its sheer orthodoxy ie if we just do the same things in the same way a bit different it will all come right. It wont. Scotland’s greatest resource is its land. If that land continues to empty then we – all of us – have failed.


    Firstly, many thanks to not only Hugh Andrew ( the owner of Birlinn publishers ) and Mike for this last, to my mind the most interesting, contributions, but to the many others who have made a contribution.
    Having been involved in once setting up a highly successful land reform debate in Tobermory ( I think I remember Angus Robertson being there ) I would be happy to chair a follow on debate in the Aros Hall if anyone is interested in setting it up.
    Might even do some of that leg work myself. Speak to me if interested, I can probably give it a puff in my Artwork column.
    To answer the points in the last exchange;
    Hugh says that the last referendum on Mull merely asked if the people wanted the buy out. Is he suggesting that a referendum question should be ” Would you like £4million to spend?” Now that WOULD be a waste of money!
    Hugh asks if there is going to be more money invested. Obviously yes we surely all know that is the case, and I have no problem with that. Let’s say the total invest is £10 million and we end up with an island that is visited by 50,000 a year ( Iona gets more than twice that ), houses 100 ( it once had six hundred ) and receives 500,000 hits a year from school children and students around the world, particularly from Australia ( the founding father of Australia was born there ) Not a bad return in the context of 800 million being spent on the Edinburgh Trams, and that the ferry services and other support systems are a fixed cost.
    I dont buy Mike’s comment that we already have a nature reserve on Rum. What we have on Rum is a bouroch of half thought through notions, an over priced hostel and some poor buggers trying to grow tatties in a midge infested swamp of a croft. An example of a completely wrong community buy out that was just a PR stunt that backfired. I am delighted to see the comments made by both Mike and Hugh against the notion of development in the islands being just to allow a free market in tourism. Lets not forget that it rains in this area for as much as forty weeks a year,it can never compete with the Med whilst cheap flights are extant and would be a waste of a precious resort just to encourage bus loads of tourists who think that Columba went to Iona shortly before America. Now this notion of the land being returned to the people from the government. Isn’t the government the representative of the people. Let us also not forget that if we hand over the 11 per cent to Trusts they will have to beg their subsidies from charity trusts that are often looked after by unelected retired people who haven’t a clue. No bring on the peoples republic of Ulva and let it become a true nature reserve that is accessible not only to day visitors but to students from around the world through the internet.

  22. maxwell macleod says:

    Finally to Mike’s question. ” In what way do the people of buy outs have to pay their way, and to whom? ” This is surely the key question of all land use. What is the point of it all? We have a massive asset of wild land that needs to be properly managed without bankrupting the nation, which is would do if every square inch were bought out and subsidised by the state that would doubtless run them badly. Lets look to every experiment in communism in the last hundreds years to see proof of that. Let there be places where the State buys and runs areas of land and supports the people but those areas have to take responsibility for delivering services to the wider community that bankrolls them. Apart from anything else Ulva is going to have to have a heavily subsidised ferry service, and there’s no such thing as a free launch

  23. Magnus Linklater says:

    The Ulva story finally reached its conclusion today [Thursday] with the formal handing over of the island to the North West Mull community group. Let us all hope they make a success of it. For the views of Ulva’s previous owner, Jamie Howard, as he departs the island for the last time, see my piece in The Times tomorrow.

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